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Johann David Wyss (1743–1818)

Author of The Swiss Family Robinson

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About the Author

Disambiguation Notice:

The CK info is Johann David Wyss. His son, Johann Rudolf Wyss, edited and completed the manuscript of The Swiss Family Robinson.

Please do not combine father and son. Thank you.

Image credit: Philatelia.Net

Works by Johann David Wyss

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) — Author — 8,904 copies, 89 reviews
The Swiss Family Robinson [abridged] (1969) 45 copies, 1 review
Der schweizerische Robinson : nacherzählt (2012) — Author — 7 copies, 1 review
Swiss Family Robinson [adapted - Saddleback Classics] (2003) — Original Author — 5 copies
Stranded [2002 TV movie] (2002) — Author — 5 copies

Associated Works

The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature, Volumes 1-2 (1955) — Contributor — 466 copies, 4 reviews
Swiss Family Robinson [1960 film] (1960) — Original book — 304 copies, 2 reviews
Lost in Space [1998 film] (1998) — Original book — 216 copies, 2 reviews
Swiss Family Robinson [1940 film] (1940) — Original book — 1 copy


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Wyss, Johann David
Legal name
Wyss, Johann David
Date of death
Bern, Swiss Confederation
Place of death
Bern, Swiss Confederation
Places of residence
Köniz, Bern, Swiss Confederation
Berne Academy
Academy of Lausanne
Wyss, Johann Rudolf (son)
Wyss, Johann Emmanuel (son)
Short biography
Johann David Wyss (May 28, 1743 – January 11, 1818) is best remembered for his book The Swiss Family Robinson. It is said that he was inspired by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but wanted to write a story from which his own children would learn, as the father in the story taught important lessons to his children. The Swiss Family Robinson was first published in 1812 and translated into English two years later. It has since become one of the most popular books of all time. The book was edited by his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss, a scholar who wrote the Swiss national anthem. Another son, Johann Emmanuel Wyss, illustrated the book. Unlike his son, Johann David Wyss lived up to the age of 74, dying in 1818, four years after he wrote The Swiss Family Robinson. Wyss has been described as an author whose style was "firmly Christian and moral in tone".
Disambiguation notice
The CK info is Johann David Wyss. His son, Johann Rudolf Wyss, edited and completed the manuscript of The Swiss Family Robinson.

Please do not combine father and son. Thank you.



The Swiss Family Robinson, 1963 in George Macy devotees (December 2022)


The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss (1812) 125K words

Jules Verne's 47th novel in the Extraordinary Voyages ("The Castaways of the Flag", 1900) is a sequel and homage to Johann David Wyss' "The Swiss Family Robinson". In preparation for reading Verne's book, I first read Wyss' novel, a classic Robinsonade from the beginning of the 19th century.

What is it about?: A married couple and their four sons leave their home in Switzerland planning to settle half a world away. But things do not turn out as they had expected. The sole survivors of a terrible shipwreck, they wash ashore to learn that the danger has only begun. Their new world will test their courage, cleverness, endurance, and faith as they struggle to survive and create a civilization of their own in the wilderness.

Johann Wyss, a Swiss pastor, originally wrote this book to entertain and instruct his four sons. The book was very successful, and on each new edition he revised the novel, adding new stories. The situation becomes more confusing with the translations. The French translator Isabelle de Montolieu also modified and added new stories, and the most popular English translation (by William H. G. Kingston) is an abridged version of the modified French translation. Things got to a point when there's no such thing as the original, since every single edition seems to be different. So perhaps I should begin by saying the version I read, based on Kingston's translation, is one of the several versions available at Project Gutenberg. I read this one, to be precise: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/3836

I don't know if the experience would be much different with another translation, but age has not been kind to this novel. Verne wrote one other sequel to a different writer's work ("An Antarctic Mystery", aka "The Sphinx of the Ice Realm", which was a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's novel "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket"), and Poe's style felt quite modern. However, "The Swiss Family Robinson" is missing several things that we take for granted in a novel.

After the shipwreck, the crew leaves the ship, abandoning the Swiss family they had as passengers alone on board. However, this family will be the ones who will survive. After they manage to get to land, they start working on basic survival tasks like obtaining food and finding shelter. They are able to rescue a lot of material and animals from the shipwrecked ship, which helps a lot (the ship had been going to provision a new colony, so it had a lot of useful material).

Now, some modern readers complain about old novels because the characters think or act differently from modern people, but I normally do not mind these things. People killed animals because they had to eat, and they did not have a slaughterhouse to do it for them out of their sight. They tended to be religious and had the values of their time, not of our time. Sometimes the pace is slower in these old novels, and they are not in a rush to tell the story. I'm perfectly fine with that. In fact, in the hands of a competent writer, these stylistic differences can add a certain charm and a feeling of period authenticity to the story. However, this novel is from 1812, earlier than most of my favorite adventure novels of that century, and even for a reader like me it was not easy to enjoy.

I certainly like the basic premise of the story, and in the hands of Verne, Stevenson or any writer like that I would have loved it, but here I had several problems.

First I have to mention the dialogues. More formality than we are used to is to be expected in novels from this period, but to my ear the dialogues here sound awkward and unrealistic. I don't know if it's the original or the translation. but did these people really speak like this?:

I observed to her that I could not but view with alarm the many cares and exertions to be made. ‘In the first place, a journey to the vessel must be made. This is of absolute necessity, at least, if we would not be deprived of the livestock and other useful things, all of which from moment to moment we risk losing by the first heavy sea. What ought we first to resolve on? For example, should not our very first endeavour to be the contriving of a better sort of habitation and a more secure retreat from wild beasts, as well as a separate place for our provisions? I own I am at a loss what to begin first.’

‘Return to the wreck by all means,’ replied my wife, cheerfully. ‘Patience, order and perseverance will help us through all our work, and I agree with you that a visit to the wreck is without doubt our first duty. Come, let us wake the children, and set to work without delay.’

The story is told in first person from the perspective of the father. It soon becomes very episodic. The problem is that the episodes are repetitive and, worse than that, they do not seem to contribute to the advancement of the plot, so that it feels as if at any moment you could skip twenty pages ahead without even noticing it.

The episodes go like this: the characters find some strange plant or animal. Then either the father, who is a human 19th-century version of the Wikipedia and seems to know every obscure trivia about natural history, or Ernest, the most bookish son, identifies it and explain how they can make use of it. If it's an animal, they kill or capture it in order to domesticate it. If it's a plant, they use it to make ink, or oil, or clothes, or any other thing. Rinse and repeat one hundred time. Or perhaps the episode is about them building a new home or a new farm, or a bridge or some other thing.

These episodes can serve for the father to teach the boys some moral lesson or, more often, some trivia about natural history or physical science.

I can see how this was an influence on Verne, who also has a didactic element in many of his stories and also wrote about shipwrecked people making a life for themselves and prospering through their hard work and ingenuity ("The Mysterious Island", "Two Years' Vacation"...). However, Verne was a gifted storyteller. Wyss, not so much. The episodes do not build on each other to tell a story, and that, and their repetitive nature, makes them a bit dull and lacking in tension.

The premise, and the idea of the family with four boys isolated on a desert island and working together to survive and prosper is fun, but the execution is less fun.

The fauna and flora of the island is completely unrealistic. We are talking about an island in the Indian Ocean, near the equator, but whatever animal or plant you can think of (and many you can't think of) are there. Seriously, anything goes. From monkeys to lions, from penguins to elephants, from seals to boas constrictor or weirder animals I had never heard of, they are all there in this island. Sometimes it's a single exemplar of the species, but every kind of animal seems to be there. Presumably, the author had access to books about world fauna but he, like his audience, did not have the slightest idea about what kind of animals one might expect on an island near the equator in the Indian Ocean. In that he also reminds me of Verne, who did have some unlikely fauna sometimes, but Wyss really takes it to the extreme.

The characters all have their own personality, but they do not talk and interact in a realistic manner. Also, they are very industrious and have a lot of ingenuity, but they do not do some very basic things one would expect of shipwrecked people. For example, after ten years in the island, they have only explored their more immediate surrounding. They have no idea about the shape of the island, or even if it's really an island. Seriously, for all they know there could be a town on the other side of the island, or they could be in a continent.

Maybe this works as a collection of tales to tell your children at night, where the repetitive nature does not matter, and where you can introduce some lessons, but the art of storytelling has left this behind, and I can't really recommend this novel, unless you are interested in the history of adventure literature. But I can't recommend it if you are just looking for entertainment.

I don't like being so harsh, and I can't help wondering if this is the victim of a bad translation (I love Verne, for example, but I hear he had some bad English translations). But as far as this translated version of "The Swiss Family Robinson" goes, I can't recommend it. Thankfully I now have the Verne sequel to enjoy. I have no doubt it will be better.

Enjoyment factor: Sadly, I didn't enjoy this one as I would have liked. There's not much of a plot. The premise is quite good, however. The family togetherness and the perseverance, ingenuity and hard work of the characters made it tolerable.

Note: checking other versions in Project Gutenberg, I found this one which seems to be in a less awkward English than Kingston's translation. It also has more plot coming from Isabelle de Montolieu French version, including natives. Verne's continuation does not have these natives, but nevertheless the reader might find this version of "The Swiss Family Robinson" more accessible: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/11703
… (more)
jcm790 | 3 other reviews | May 26, 2024 |
It's a very long time since I read it, but from memory it was a rather boring.
lcl999 | 88 other reviews | Feb 14, 2024 |
A shipwreck; a deserted island; a single family, wondering if they can survive. Rich in suspense and surprises, The Swiss Family Robinson entices young readers to come along on a wonderful adventure, where each moment brings a new thrill. Featuring amazingly resourceful characters and a wondrous landscape bursting with exotic wildlife and plants, it's an irresistible tale of ingenuity.
PlumfieldCH | 3 other reviews | Sep 23, 2023 |



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